October 2021 8 Min Read

Ikepod: Design and the Art of Time

By Tony Traina

There’s this old Marc Newson quote that often gets tossed around: “I think it’s really important to design things with a kind of personality.”

You could certainly say that Newson’s design-driven watch brand, Ikepod, fits this axiom.

When Ikepod was founded in 1994 by Marc Newson and entrepreneur Oliver Ike, the Swiss brand achieved cult status for its distinct designs, defined by its large, round pod cases that looked like a UFO had crashed into the wearer’s wrist. The name “Ikepod” itself is a portmanteau of co-founder Ike’s name, along with “pod”, the shape that would go on to define the brand.

A selection of Ikepod watches with distinct designs and shapes, courtesy of Marc Newson.

Ikepod hit its stride in 1997 when it introduced the Hemipode, Ikepod’s self-described “masterpiece”, defined by its large, round 47mm “lugless” case. Ikepod’s logo is actually a hemipode, a small flightless bird (also called a buttonquail). Early generations of Ikepod’s watches feature the stylised bird only on the crown, while later generations also feature it subtly engraved on the crystal.

“I think it’s really important to design things with a kind of personality.”

Marc Newson

The brand happened to arrive at the perfect time, just as larger watches became popular around the turn of the century. With the Paneristi dominating conversations and IWC holding itself out as the “official supplier to men” in ad campaigns, bigger was better.

Tony Fadell, an American inventor who worked on the Apple Watch, and his collection, which also includes an Ikepod (centre), courtesy of Hodinkee.

But even still, Ikepod was different. Not just following these trends, Ikepod helped to shape them too. It was perhaps the first independent watch company producing true “concept” watches, arriving on the scene a few years before brands like Urwerk, De Bethune, and others. In addition to these large case sizes, Ikepod brought ideas like limited-edition production and high-end luxury pricing to watchmaking, giving its watches the impression of something more than just watches, but high-end objects of design that you happened to wear on the wrist.

Ikepod: The Brand with a Bird

Before we fully dive into Ikepod, a brief introduction must be made to its co-founder, designer Marc Newson. Adjectives like visionary and innovative might be used to describe the industrial designer, but all seem to fall short in truly underscoring his impact not only on the world of design, but in shaping everything around you and me.

Marc Newson, the co-founder and designer of Ikepod’s earliest and most fascinating pieces, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In early designs like the Lockheed Lounge and Embryo Chair, Newson began to develop a recognisable style, often defined by smooth lines, transparency, and a lack of sharp edges and angles. In the 1980s, a decade before the launch of Ikepod, he even designed an early circular “Pod watch”. Ikepod watches immediately fit into Newson’s signature style.

“Stylistically, the Ikepod watches are classic Newson,” Richard Wright, the founder of leading modern and contemporary design auction house Wright Auction, says of Newson and his designs for Ikepod. “The rounded forms, ever so slightly exaggerated, and the patterned dials and finishes all relate to his work in full-scale furniture forms for which he is famous.”

A Gluon armchair alongside the striking orange dial of a Hemipode watch – parallels in colour and rounded design, courtesy of Marc Newson.

After introducing the Hemipode in 1997, Ikepod would iterate on its iconic pod shape, releasing it in various complications, case materials, and, living up to its positioning as an object of design and art, collaborating with contemporary artists like KAWS and Jeff Koons on limited editions.

'The rounded forms, ever so slightly exaggerated, and the patterned dials and finishes all relate to [Newson's] work in full-scale furniture forms for which he is famous.'

Richard Wright

Newson’s last new watch design for Ikepod was the Solaris in 2008, a squircle-shaped oddity that seems to anticipate his work on the Apple Watch that would come in the next decade. In his final years with the brand, Newson also designed the Ikepod Hourglass, a ridiculous proposition that measured about 30cm tall and contained around eight million “nanoballs” that act as a 60-minute timer. As the nanoballs fall through the Hourglass, they create a mesmerising, ASMR-inducing sound that can only be described as a horological rainforest.

The ‘squircle’-shaped Solaris, Newson’s last design for Ikepod, courtesy of Marc Newson.

After leaving Ikepod, Newson went on to join Apple, playing a pivotal role in the design of the Apple Watch, released in 2015. The rounded profile and soft curves of the Apple Watch are all pure Newson. Even more, the standard Apple Watch band utilises the same design that Newson pioneered with Ikepod two decades prior. For that reason alone, Ikepod has perhaps become the most influential watch brand of its generation, without most wearers of its design even knowing its name.

Modern Ikepod: Taking Flight Again

Ikepod was put to rest for a second time in 2012 (it also declared bankruptcy in 2006) when Newson left the company. It lay dormant for six years before it was re-launched at Baselworld in 2018 by a new set of investors led by Christian-Louis Col.

“I have been an admirer of Ikepod since 1997 with the Hemipode launch,” Christian-Louis says of his reason for re-launching Ikepod. “Pre-empting the vogues of concept watches and independent manufactures, Ikepod adorned the wrists of artists and tech moguls. The watches were in the best points of sales across the world and in concept stores. At the time, if you were in fashion, tech, or finance, it was good to wear a Daytona or a Panerai, but I fell in love with something different, not the watch of ‘everybody’.'

While the Ikepod of the 1990s and 2000s was predicated on premium pricing, the modern Ikepod has taken affordability as a core principle. By leveraging Hong Kong manufacturing and Japanese Miyota movements, Ikepod has kept its prices affordable, with all of its collections having an MSRP below $2,000.

For Col, it’s a conscious choice, informed by his personal desire of wanting to buy an Ikepod back in the 1990s but being unable to afford one, when the prices were higher than even those of a Rolex sports watch. For other observers, too, the focus on affordability has been positive.

“Pre-empting the vogues of concept watches and independent manufactures, Ikepod adorned the wrists of artists and tech moguls...'

Christian-Louis Col

“I always think it’s great when strong design is democratised because I’m a firm believer that watch collecting should be for everyone,” says long-time Australian watch journalist Nick Kenyon of the modern Ikepod’s more affordable prices. “There is no reason a well-designed watch should be prohibitively expensive. It’s also refreshing to see a more contemporary design-focused brand trying to be more affordable.”

Two Birds, One Stone

Today, Ikepod holds an interesting position in the watch industry.

What can now be called “vintage” Ikepod watches, from the brand’s first lives from 1994 through 2012, seem to be increasingly appreciated by collectors, appearing more frequently at auction, and surpassing their estimates when they do. In the past year, Wright Auction sold a solid-gold Ikepod Hemipode Chronograph from 1998 for nearly $20,000; Phillips auctioned a KAWS x Ikepod Horizon from 2012 for nearly $40,000.

Of course, auction results won’t do as well as a GQ cover, and Ikepod had its modern en vogue moment in May 2020, when Kanye West wore a vintage gold Hemipode on the cover of American GQ. Previously, Kanye has referred to the Ikepod as his “favourite watch”, directly referencing its bold circular cases as the reason for its appeal. Much the way current owner Christian-Louis recalled artists and the generally fashionable of the 1990s taking to Ikepod, it seems a modern resurgence in appreciation for the brand has led to the same. Much like a Kanye bar, history rhymes, as the saying goes.

“Design and fine-art collectors are definitely interested in these [Ikepod] watches and have always been a natural choice for all of Marc’s work,” Richard Wright said. “As the watch market has grown and matured, many of these same collectors have added watches as an area of interest, and Ikepod is an interesting sub-brand in the genre.”

Wright pointed to distribution as the primary problem that led to Ikepod folding. But in a modern world driven by the internet and social media, where something bold and different stands out amid a two-dimensional doomscroll, suddenly Ikepod’s designs feel as relevant as ever.

As for Col, he says the future of Ikepod will contain “many surprises”, viewing Ikepod not only as a watch brand, but as a design company interested in creating all types of objects.

As journalist Kenyon points out, modern Ikepod is already doing this, bringing in recognised designers such as Fabrice Gonet – who has worked on a number of horological projects with the likes of MB&F and Laurent Ferrier – to create new design collections. For example, the new Seapod collection makes several nods to the 1996 Newson design of the Seaslug. Other Ikepod designs have been realised by Emmanuel Gueit, most famous for designing the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph.

An 18k gold Hemipode Chronograph at auction, the same watch that Kanye West owns and wore on the cover of GQ, courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“However, as time goes on, the team at Ikepod will need to get more and more creative about how they maintain this balance between the past and the future,” Kenyon added.

Achieving this balance between past and future is exactly what we ask of our best designers, artists, and – dare I say – watchmakers.

At their best, Ikepod’s designs cause one to contemplate more profound questions, the types of inquiries that provocative art or design might also raise, such as: What is art anyway? When can watches be more than just watches, and when might watchmaking truly be considered art? And what makes for good design in watches?

And like any good piece of art or design, Ikepod’s creations often leaves one with more questions than answers.

We would like to thank Richard Wright, Christian-Louis Col, and Nick Kenyon for speaking to us about these beautifully designed watches.